10 in 10: The F.W. Woolworth Building

14 Sep

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of Art at Work Month, our 10 in 10 series is spotlighting a decade’s worth of fabulous things about Tacoma.

Woolworth's, a 1950's superstore. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library

The Woolworth Building. It’s an anchor of Tacoma’s downtown, a box-shaped receptacle of local lore, and a bastion of nostalgia for those who shopped at the famous five-and-dime or filled up at its homey lunch counter before it closed to the public in January 1994. It’s one of Tacoma’s best-loved buildings, with a varied past. Today, Woolworth’s broad storefront windows provide a unique, open-air exhibition space for art, and no longer advertise the inexpensive household goods that attracted windowshoppers from 1950 on.

The building at 955 Broadway is a landmark of local history and architecture. In the 1800s, it was the location of the First Presbyterian Church (and of a freshwater spring that sometimes leaked inside. Trickles persist to this day.). The church’s minister condemned the racism aimed against Chinese railroad workers at the time, but to no avail; they were driven out of town in the 1880s.

Waiting for the doors to open at Woolworth's. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library

In 1890, the church was replaced by a new altar dedicated to the world of finance: the Fidelity Building, designed by the great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, of Burnham & Root. (Another of the firm’s structures, the Luzon Building on Pacific Ave., was demolished last year against the protests of citizens and preservationists.) Exactly six decades later, the Fidelity Building was razed to make room for Woolworth’s: such was the success of the New York-based retail chain that it could afford to tear down a handsomely embellished 12-story skyscraper and replace it with a four-story, post-Deco structure whose style was dictated by its brand image. The superstore of the future opened during United Tacoma Days, on Nov. 2, 1950.

The five-and-dime was located across from the sprawling Crystal Sanitary Market where fresh produce filled the stalls; and from the classy Rhodes department store. Other neighbors included small specialty shops, dressmakers and haberdashers. Tacoma’s theater district, one block away, came alive at night; by six o’clock the independent businesses would close, but the behemoth retailer would stay open later, selling candy to moviegoers. Woolworth’s quickly became an important fixture for those who lived downtown, a place where one could find anything – housewares, shoes, cheap jewelry, Simplicity dress patterns and fabric, toys, even pets – and still have enough left for a grilled cheese sandwich and a ‘shake at the 62-seat lunch counter.

Woolworth's opened in 1950 across from the Crystal Sanitary Market. Photo courtesy of Tacoma Public Library

“It was a very urban thing,” says historian and architectural consultant, Michael Sullivan. He notes that the national chain store was among the first designed to keep shoppers focused on the breadth of products lining the aisles through the use of focused lighting, and by minimizing the number of windows.

In February 1960, at the lunch counter of the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, four African American college students initiated a sit-in, thus, giving birth to an iconic chapter of the civil rights movement. Since the 1930s, the official company policy had been to serve all Americans, regardless of race; but it was never enforced in the Jim Crow South where individual store managers set the rules. The students’ action sparked a series of nonviolent, sit-in protests and boycotts across the South. Five months later, on July 26, 1960, all Woolworth stores were desegregated. The Greensboro, NC, Woolworth’s is now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, and a section of its lunch counter has pride of place in the Smithsonian Institution.

According to Sullivan’s research, the Tacoma store never experienced the kind of racial tension (it wasn’t segregated) that afflicted those in the South. Known as the purveyor of a wide but modestly priced array of merchandise (as well as the 62-cent turkey dinner), “It was always viewed as a populist place,” one that reflected “the diversity of the city.

“It seemed the most public and most egalitarian of places,” he says. Everyone, it seemed, shopped at Woolworth’s.

The store’s decline began in the 1960s with the arrival of I-5; its eventual demise was sealed with the inauguration of the Tacoma Mall. But the store continued to have a faithful downtown following for another 25 years, including single folks, pensioners, and people on fixed incomes who enjoyed the ritual of coffee at the lunch counter. Sullivan recalls, “You could get a wholesome meal at a fair price. There was a uniformed waitress there with a pencil in her bun, saying, ‘What can I get you, honey?'”

"Great-Tasting Goodness!" by Gabriel Brown, at the Woolworth Building

The F.W. Woolworth Building closed its doors in January 1994; today it houses a telephone switching station. Since 2004, the building’s post-Deco outer casing has showcased rotating art exhibitions inside capacious wraparound windows – it’s one of the city’s most unique and dynamic attractions. Sullivan says it’s easy to understand why Tacomans still love this iconic, 61-year-old structure. “It has a sense of place, and a familiarity; [it represents] a social investment as part of the streetscape, for generations.”

The Woolworth Building came into its own as an art venue in 2004, with an ambitious exhibition, Scattered Ephemera, that we’ll be covering in a future post. Today, Woolworth’s is the flagship exhibition space of Spaceworks Tacoma, a project connecting artists with vacant retail storefront space.

Past 10 in 10 topics include:
10 in 10: UW-Tacoma and SOTA

8 Responses to “10 in 10: The F.W. Woolworth Building”

  1. Terry McLaughlin September 14, 2011 at 10:06 am #

    Woolworth’s Department Store, as mentioned a fixture in New York State in the 1950’s, brings back a lot of nostalgia to me. The Woolworth’s five and dime store on Main Street in Saugerties, New York was at least a weekly destination for my family, as everything could be found there for a great, low price. My mom taught me to bake and to sew, and dad and the 4-H Club filled my early life with lots of things to learn and chores to do, and this store had the thread I needed to make those 4-H club sewing projects, like pot holders, aprons, and even clothing made from my colorful feed bags that were remaining after the chicken feed and feed bags for my calf were emptied. Dad and Mom remembered the Great Depression very well, and everything coming into the McLaughlin home and small farm had “another use” to save the money my school teacher dad made for more important expenses.

    Today, I use the skills I first learned in my mother’s kitchen when she taught me how to bake pies, cakes, cookies, bread, and sweet pastries! Dr. Terry’s Pies fits right in to the Tacoma tradition, strategically placed right near the original farmer’s markets located near the current Rhodes building on Broadway. Hundreds have purchased slices of Dr. Terry’s Pies from Dr. Terry himself since August of 2010. You can do the same every Thursday at the Tacoma Broadway Farmer’s Market from 10:30 until 4, through the middle of October! Yes, I have translated my skills that centered often around a Woolworth’s building in a small town in the Hudson River valley of New York State to now preserve the wonderful history of the Tacoma Farmer’s Market right here where I have lived and served as the former Tacoma Police Chaplain in the 1970’s and the 1980’s.

    You can make that stop tomorrow in Tacoma at the Broadway Farmer’s Market, and meet Dr. Terry personally, and yes, you can buy a slice of his famous Pear Pie, first baked in 1954 near the Woolworth’s in Saugerties, NY. He will, however, miss the market on September 28 to be with his classmates at their 50th High School Reunion in Saugerties, making his classic Dr. Terry’s Pies for the brunch at the reunion!

    • Tacoma Arts September 14, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

      Dear Dr. Terry,

      Would that slice of pie be at 1954 prices? No matter, sounds delicious – we’ll see you at the market one of these days!

  2. Steve Mondau September 14, 2011 at 12:42 pm #

    You are one block off on your location in regard to what was then known as The Crystal PALACE Market. The maket was across 11th St one half block above Broadway on the same side of 11th as Fisher Department Store.Rhodes fronted on Broadway & extended up 11th to the alley.on that same side of 11th there was an ice-creamery, Then Arctic Furiers, Mondau’s Tug Boat Restaurant,Then The Entrance to the Merit Hotel. The market set directly across from these shops on 11th St

    • Tacoma Arts September 14, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

      Thank you for the correction, Steve – and for describing a very different neighborhood scene than the one we know now…


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  3. 10 in 10: 2004 Scattered Ephemera « Tacoma Arts - December 23, 2011

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    […] On July 26th, 1960, Sam Cooke released his composition, “Chain Gang.”  This is a very historical date for on “July 26, 1960, all Woolworth stores were desegregated. The Greensboro, NC, Woolworth’s is now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, and a section of its lunch counter has pride of place in the Smithsonian Institution.”-TacomaArts […]

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